It’s January – that month when we all experience both the letdown of the holidays being behind us and the elation of the new year ahead with all its possibilities for how we will fix our business and our lives. One of the most important resolutions I ever made in my business life was learning how and when to say no and sticking to it. This is the lesson that had the greatest effect on my goal of a better personal life.
Every business is based on customers or clients buying our products or using our services. So we want all of them we can get, right? Perhaps not. What service business doesn’t have that needy client who calls and needs support right when we are leaving to meet our spouse for dinner, and it can’t wait? What manufacturing business hasn’t had the customer whose new project can’t wait until tomorrow? What retail business doesn’t have the “good” customer who always rushes in at closing with an emergency to find just the right birthday gift for her sister? How we handle these situations can have a huge effect on both our work and home lives and the culture we foster for our employees. You don’t have to respond to every emergency just because you can, and learning that is totally liberating.
First, we need to decide what constitutes a real emergency for which we will bend our schedule for the client’s needs. Remember the old saying “Your lack of planning does not constitute my emergency.” Is the situation at hand something that was out of the client’s control, or does he leave everything until it reaches crisis level? Make a list of some of the things that you consider an emergency. There will be a range of possibilities, and you should create scenarios in descending order of urgency. What is important enough to cause you to drop everything? What qualifies for a quick phone conversation, hearing a short version of the problem and promising action at a specified future time? What problems can be referred to an assistant for resolution and hand holding? When is the client clearly “crying wolf”?
Secondly, create a list of problem clients. Who only has major emergencies? Who calls weekly with a problem that won’t wait? Who treats your employees poorly when they try to help? One of the hardest lessons to learn for a young entrepreneur is that every client is not a profitable client, and there are some instances where the best thing to say to a prospect who represents a significant piece of business is to find another source. If the cost of servicing any client’s needs represents more than what you will gain, refuse his business. It is rare for a company to have a small, restricted list of prospects. For everyone else, there are always more customers than you can service, so stake out those who help you meet both your business and personal goals, and expend your energy closing them.
It is important that you try to convey to your problem customers the reasons you are turning them away. It must be done in an objective manner, preferably in writing. Don’t ever let yourself get dragged into a “he said/she said” conversation. Avoid escalating email chains that serve no purpose. Remember that in the present day everything ends up on the web, so the less said the better. One suggestion is to explain to your client that you are unable to continue to provide service to him because of a difference in company cultures. It is true without forcing you to complain about your client’s negative behavior. Then, the hardest part, stick to your guns.
If you have employees, it is critical to teach them how to say no for you and for themselves. Set standards of expectation in writing. Nobody should be able to send a customer packing but you, but your staff should understand that they should not ruin your anniversary dinner by putting you on the phone with a client as you walk out the door unless certain conditions are met. You’ll be surprised at how much better you and your employees will feel when you implement these suggestions, and how much better your personal life will become.